A case for Magic Flute

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A case for Magic Flute

There are a lot of Magic Flute haters out there in the business. I think I get it. I think it's the pervasive folksiness, the Masonic references that fail to connect beyond the lodge, and boy, is it preachy. But I'd like to share here why the score never fails to astound me.  This is the program note I wrote for OH's production that is about to enter its second weekend of a six-show, double-cast run. (Come see it)

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The Magic Flute stands out in the repertoire for its fantastical fairy tale narrative and wildly imaginative music. Its colorful characters make for a particularly captivating introduction to the art form, and its score serves as a sort of kaleidoscopic portrait of Mozart's infinite gifts. It appears he used every musical device in his arsenal - from the lightest ditties in the popular style of the time, to the most elaborate structures that alternately recall and forecast over a century's worth of stylistic developments on either end.

Akin to the pop-songs of their day, Papageno's charming arias are exaggeratedly folk-like - simple and catchy to the extreme. "Der Vogelfänger bin ich, ja, (I am the bird-catcher)," punctuated by his signature five-note figure on his panpipes, is one such aria that conveys a rustic simplicity befitting our proverbial every-man character, whose desires in life are wholly uncomplicated: food, wine, and love. 

In stark contrast is the music of the Queen of the Night, whose grandiose entrance resembles something out of Baroque opera seria from a prior generation of the art form that primarily told stories of gods and monarchs. The characteristic gestures are all there - a stately orchestral introduction, accompanied recitative,"O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn (Oh tremble not, my dear son)," a lamenting aria, "Zum leiden bin ich auserkoren (I am chosen for suffering)," - recalling Handel, until Mozart, as if flipping a switch, launches the Queen into an otherworldly display of unprecedented vocal virtuosity, outdone only by her second act rage aria "Der Hölle Rache (Hell's vengeance)."

It is in the music of our romantic leads, Tamino and Pamina, that we hear Mozart paving the way for 19th century lyricism. In Tamino's aria "Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön, (This picture is enchantingly beautiful)" Mozart offers soaring heroic gestures, not shying away from dissonances, inhabiting a warm orchestral sound world finessed by the soft edging of clarinets. Pamina's pathetic aria, "Ach ich fühl's es ist verschwunden (Ah, I feel it disappeared)," in contrast offers sparse accompaniment that communicates the bleak emptiness experienced by our heroine, whose halting rhythms signal her throbbing heartache. Mozart, the great psychologist of opera, takes these insights several steps further by designing the opening phrase of Pamina's aria to match that of the Queen with the identical descending figure, note-for-note. Like mother, like daughter, Mozart shows us, by cultivating their signature moments from shared musical DNA. 

This sort of intratextual musical allusion occurs throughout the opera. Tamino's reflection on eternal night, "O ew'ge Nacht," appropriately enough, quotes the same melodic figure in the Queen of the Night's very first utterance, "O zittre nicht." In Pamina's hard-won reunion with Tamino, she ecstatically cries, "Tamino, mein (mine)!" tracing the opening phrase of Tamino's aria. Here are early examples of Leitmotif, or recurring associative themes, that would define Wagner's approach to musical storytelling, the better part of a century later. The debt Wagner owed Mozart is also abundantly apparent in the choruses of the priests in Act II, "O Isis und Osiris," which unmistakably anticipate passages in Parsifal, that similarly represent the triumph of light over darkness. 

Just when we take a second to catch our breath from Mozart's wild tour navigating popular song idioms, Baroque opera conventions, and proto-Romantic aesthetics, the score takes a leap back, not decades, but centuries into the past. The broad, monolithic declamations of the Two Armored Men in the Act II finale, constitute a cantus firmus anchoring a four-voiced fugue in the strings, a practice that harks back to the High Renaissance, lending immense gravitas to the moment. Not long after this anachronistic and academic music plays out, in comes Papageno again, thrusting us back into the jaunty popular style of Mozart's own time.

While it would be an impossible task to summarize the breadth of Mozart's craft, Magic Flute might serve as well as any single volume could. One would be hard-pressed to find a score by any composer of any era that so deftly synthesizes such disparate styles into a cohesive sound world. Although its fantastical setting and vocal virtuosity tend to draw the most immediate attention, Magic Flute generates its timeless, transportive power from a miraculous feat of compositional virtuosity that could have only come from Mozart.

 

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Rest in peace, Bill Fabris

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Rest in peace, Bill Fabris

I am deeply saddened at the news that Bill Fabris, brilliant director, choreographer, and beloved colleague and mentor to countless opera professionals, passed away on February 28.

What a lovely, lovely person. He directed Fledermaus for Opera in the Heights last August-September and made every moment a pure joy for everyone. We used his smart and stylish translation that left both performers and audiences in stitches. He got our chorus to dance, really dance, on our teeny tiny stage. He participated in our talk-back session from the audience to keep the spotlight on the singers. He stuck around Houston a week after we opened to catch all the performances. We absolutely loved having him here.

With his extraordinary craft and humanity, he has helped countless opera people find new delights and deeper rewards in what we do. My heart is full of sadness at his passing but also profound gratitude for the privilege of having known this sweet man. Rest in peace, Bill.

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Opening Opera in the Heights's 21st Season

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Opening Opera in the Heights's 21st Season

Opening night of Fledermaus was lovely. Very proud of how it all came together. Really strong, stylish performances from everyone. Regrettably, I have not been as good as my cast members have been about taking pictures and sharing the experience. Since I don't have any photos to share, I'll post my program note. I'd be glad if it succeeds in capturing even a small fraction of my deep gratitude for the way our community came together to make this season a reality.

Here it is:

Starting the season with Die Fledermaus is a bit like eating dessert first. I can think of no piece more irresistible or indulgent. After the dire financial situation Oh! overcame with the help of our generous supporters, the time seems right to celebrate with a little something sweet.

Fledermaus is a piece unique in its devotion to the idea of fun. Our performers face the considerable challenge of making sure the audience enjoys themselves as much as the partygoers at Prince Orlovsky's ball (and boy, they party hard in that second act)! Luckily, our not-so-secret weapon is the Waltz King, Johann Strauss II, and his incredibly joyful music. How can we not bounce along to those wildly infectious polkas and waltzes?

What is especially engaging about the way the music operates in Fledermaus, is that, for much of the time, the characters onstage are hearing the same music that the audience does. It might seem like an obvious point, but the same can't be said about most arias and underscoring in opera. In Rosalinda's Csardas, when she sings of her supposed homeland Hungary; when Adele proves her talents for the stage in her "Audition Aria"; and when the partygoers jubilantly dance at the ball; the audience and the characters are all taking in the very same music in real-time.

Film composers call it diegetic music, when the source of the music is audible (and sometimes visible) to the characters in the story. This dynamic of shared experience between the characters and the audience is especially potent here in Lambert Hall, where the orchestra is in plain sight of the audience. Our wonderfully witty director Bill Fabris has staged certain characters to be aware of the orchestra, too, just one of his many creative touches that makes the action on stage more immediate and immersive.

I am always delighted when our audience members tell me that they feel as though they are part of the action. Our artists will tell you that the feeling is mutual; the proximity of the audience feeds them the energy to take their performance to the next level. It is one of the reasons our artists who move on to perform at bigger houses remain loyal to Oh!, eager to return.

This season, that synergy between audience and performer carries special weight, as we emerge on the other end of a fundraising campaign to save the company. It has been a remarkable crusade in which both artists and supporters alike demonstrated their deep sense of ownership over what Opera in the Heights has to offer. We thank you with our whole hearts for your incredible support.

We are excited to be opening this spectacular season to share the fruits of our collective investment and efforts. You might hear an added sparkle to the sounds coming from the stage and orchestra this season. I have certainly noticed something special in rehearsals. I think it might be the sound of gratitude.

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OH! presents Menotti's Telephone and Medium

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OH! presents Menotti's Telephone and Medium

Opera in the Heights opens its double bill of Menotti's The Telephone and The Medium this weekend, with shows Fri 10/30, Sun 11/1, Thur 11/5, and Sat 11/7. It has been a joy to prepare, and I am extraordinarily proud of the product. Since I cannot quite contain my excitement for opening night, I am posting my program note here: 

In a 1947 radio interview, Gian Carlo Menotti described the then-current state of opera by quoting Nöel Coward: "People are wrong when they say that the opera isn't what it used to be. It is what it used to be — that's what's wrong with it!" Menotti then went on in his own words, "People don't realize that opera is theatre. It must be live theatre. Just as the plays change with the passing centuries, so should opera." He made his point, in part to reject the notion that opera had become a museum piece in his time, and also to explain his practice of writing his own libretti. "In writing The Telephone and The Medium, I purposely set the action in modern times, and I chose two subjects that I certainly don't think have ever been used before in opera."

His assertion is a fair one, and these works were undoubtedly progressive. His musical language, with its frequent meter changes and free use of dissonances, might also be considered modern, though only to a limited extent. Opera professionals today celebrate Menotti's ability to wed 20th century techniques with a melody-driven aesthetic that draws a great deal from 19th century Italian lyricism. In The Telephone, Lucy's most impassioned phone conversations deliberately recall Donizetti, and the influence of Puccini, however distorted through modern devices, can be heard everywhere in The Medium. His approach to words and music eventually earned him two Pulitzer Prizes (the first composer ever to do so), as well as the distinction of having authored the most performed opera in the United States (Amahl and the Night Visitors).

In The Telephone and The Medium, Menotti charted a way forward for opera, one in which composers and interpreters tackle contemporary subject matter while continuing to engage with the past. Menotti's artistic vision and craft were such that nearly seventy years after their successful premiere as a double bill in 1947, The Telephone is perhaps more relevant than ever, and The Medium continues to transport, shock, and haunt audiences today.

As a double bill they are somewhat of an odd couple, one light and silly, the other dark and tragic. They are polar opposites, and yet they are linked. In some sense, The Telephone is about noise, and The Medium is about silence. In the former, Lucy's incessant chatter will not allow Ben to ask his very important question, and in the latter, Toby, who cannot speak at all, ultimately speaks volumes. Together, they act as a study in mankind's need to be heard, our desire to communicate against all odds.

I will close with another quote by Menotti and a personal note. Projected on the walls of Casa Menotti in Spoleto, the composer's summer home and now a museum dedicated to the composer's life and work, are the words, "Sono convinto che l'arte debba essere un atto d'amore," or "I am convinced that art must be an act of love." These words perfectly encapsulate the joyful experience I have had working with the wonderful Lynda McKnight, the extraordinary design team, cast, crew, and the OH Orchestra. 

I can also think of no one else who has embodied Menotti's sentiment more than Keturah Stickann Grünblatt and her husband and collaborator, the late Jeremiah Grünblatt. Their miraculous work on last season's La Clemenza di Tito was an act of love that the Opera in the Heights family will never forget. It is in Jeremiah's memory and with hopes and wishes for healing that we dedicate these performances.

La Clemenza di Tito, Opera in the Heights, 2015. Keturah and Jeremiah showed us what making art is all about.

La Clemenza di Tito, Opera in the Heights, 2015. Keturah and Jeremiah showed us what making art is all about.

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Tomorrow

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Tomorrow

Tomorrow, Opera in the Heights opens its 2015-16 season with Pagliacci. The rehearsal process has been an absolute thrill. The cast commands off-the-charts vocalism and takes risks that pay off big time. The orchestra is doing a fabulous job with a quirky reduction. Our small, gutsy chorus has brought something new to every rehearsal. The design team has worked magic, and Susan Li is using every nook of our theater to immerse our audience in the story. It promises to be a great show, and I am beyond grateful.


Each time I reflect back on how I got here, I think of Sandra Bernhard. Tomorrow will mark the third month since her passing, and not a day has gone by that I have not asked myself whether or not I have lived up to the faith in me she demonstrated. She took a chance on me three years ago when I didn't deserve it, continued to reengage me and advise me however unworthy I was, stepped up to bat for me, and made all the difference. She is the reason I am where I am now, and I know that there are many, many more people in the arts with similar stories of Sandy's incredible generosity.

The only picture I ever took of Sandra Bernhard. Here she is showing me that the conductor can be positioned below the orchestra and all will be well.

The only picture I ever took of Sandra Bernhard. Here she is showing me that the conductor can be positioned below the orchestra and all will be well.


Sandra Bernhard taught me and so many that meaningful art is about community, collaboration, and connection. That's the "co" in HGOco, which she founded and led with boundless creativity and love. I saw that there will be a celebration of her life, to be held Monday, September 28th, 4:30pm, at Miller Outdoor Theatre. I hope that everyone who can attend will be there to celebrate a life beautifully lived. For all who had the privilege of knowing her, she lives on, as brightly and warmly as ever, in our hearts and our work. I will keep her memory very close as I stand on the podium tomorrow. 

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Website, Monica's recital, New York auditions, Tokyo

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Website, Monica's recital, New York auditions, Tokyo

Thank you for visiting my website. It's a work in progress, and I'll be adding more content soon. I hope to update this blog whenever I have a moment to reflect on a particular rehearsal or performance that strikes me. For now I'll get the ball rolling with a personal update.

My wife Monica and I were just in New York last week for a few whirlwind days for her doctoral orals and final recital. She somehow convinced me to be her pianist, and we had a fun time putting together a very demanding French program of Massenet, Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Gounod, Delibes, and Berlioz. It was a real handful for me, not having played a full program of song rep in quite some time. Special thanks to Greg for all of his help and support throughout the day of the recital. Monica has completed all of the requirements for her doctorate. I'm proud to be married to such a fine artist.

Also last week, Keith and I held auditions in New York to cast the 2015-16 season of OH. We heard almost 60 singers in two days and were very impressed with the talent on display. Houston auditions will be held the week of June 8th. Contact Keith <keith@operaintheheights.org> for more info.

I'm currently in Tokyo to visit family and will be back in Houston May 30th. Just in time to begin teaching the summer semester at LSC-Montgomery on June 1st, which also happens to be a big birthday for my wife.

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